Lines in the Earth

(In a previous post, I mused about the idea of assigning the rights to the Earth’s resources to the Earth itself, similarly to the way rights are assigned to people and to corporations. The post here is more or less the opposite. It’s about the artificiality of our current concept of property rights: dividing up and assigning the rights to pieces of the Earth, not to the Earth but to people and other legal entities.)

Several of my teenage summers were spent working for local surveyors. In many ways, it was an ideal summer job (if you ignored the poison ivy factor). We started work early and got off early, in time for a swim or a bike ride. If it was a nice day, we were “in the field” running surveys and, if it rained, I sat at a drafting table and manually plotted the numbers from the surveyor’s notebook, in essence recreating the land I’d just walked from the mathematical version of it.

This was in the early seventies, in or after the tail end of the baby boom, but there was still plenty of land subdivision going on in my increasingly suburban county.  A few orchards remained, though most now bore cul-de-sacs rather than apples.

On several occasions we were surveying in dense wetlands, perhaps the closest thing the northeast has to a rainforest. A clear sightline had to be created between the guy with the theodolite on a tripod (the “instrument man”) and each point to be measured. Being the new guy, I was usually the “rodman” – the one who walked out to each of those points and gingerly held a rod balanced upright between my fingers so that it was exactly vertical.

Those wetland areas were certainly not my favorite locations during the hot and sticky NY summers. (The best places, it turned out, were inside large sewer pipes that were kept cool by the ground above them. It took more than a little convincing before I acknowledged the fact that the, um, fluid didn’t smell when it was moving and that, in fact, the pipes were cool and shady places to eat lunch.)

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing the sightlines involved using a tool I never thought had a place in suburbia: a machete. We’d hack away at tall weeds and reeds, hoping nothing had a stem or trunk too thick to survive the machete, advancing in the straightest line we could from the seemingly arbitrary point where the tripod had been set. The instrument man would tell us if we were “off course.” It could often take half an hour of hacking to get to each point.

I recalled this experience recently while reading a chapter in The Agile City in which the author discusses the evolution of property rights here and abroad. On more than one occasion, I had thought about the “nature” of property rights and how, given a different cultural view, the idea of individuals possessing parts of the Earth could be seen as strange and unnatural.  Why should our freedom to walk – to be — anywhere be curtailed by the artificial concept of property rights.

The manifestation of property rights seems, in retrospect, to be particularly artificial in those wetlands where we were carving straight lines – human geometry — into the landscape. Straight lines, I’ve often heard, do not exist in nature; they are a creation of our minds, necessitated by our need to, among other things, define borders. Look, for instance, at the border dividing Canada from the United States. Parts of it are “natural,” defined by the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes (what happens if a river border meanders over time?), but then there’s a huge distance through most of the western half of the continent demarked by nothing visible: just the 49th Parallel, an artificial construct derived from geometry that didn’t even exist when the Earth was still thought to be flat.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source: places.designobserver.com

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source: places.designobserver.com

 

 

 

 

 

The property lines we were “staking” in those wetlands, or through the soon to be ex-farms and orchards, were just as artificial. This became especially clear to me when one day we were sent out to confirm the locations of the corners of a new house’s foundation. The numbers weren’t making any sense until we realized that the foundation had been poured in error on the adjacent property. So artificial were the divisions overlaid on the terrain that you couldn’t tell one piece of property from another. (I never did find out how the problem was legally resolved.)

In a recent online thread, an architect inquired how to find a property corner stake that had disappeared underground. Some of the replies were straightforward: presuming the stake to be metal, borrow a metal detector. (At significant survey points, a concrete post with an indent on top is often placed to mark the precise survey point. I always thought it interesting that those markers were called “monuments.” Though they bore no human figure in the sense that a conventional monument might, they surely were monuments to man’s claim to nature.)

 A survey monument. Image source: landsurveyorsunited.com

A survey monument. Image source: landsurveyorsunited.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the stake was wood, though, the answer as much more complicated. First, of course, there’s no such thing as a “wood detector.” Moreover, if the stake was in the soil and had been there for a while, it might have decomposed. What could be more appropriate? Nature devouring – digesting – man’s attempt to define and claim it.

In The Agile City, James Russell notes that during the constitutional convention, there was a debate between Jefferson and Franklin as to whether the Constitution should guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or “life, liberty and property.” In spite of happiness (and Franklin) winning out, property rights in this country have an extraordinary place in law and in our ethos. For some, property equates to happiness, especially in a material society. But perhaps we should refocus on the decision to emphasize happiness versus property. It stands to reason that we would be happier.

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